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Arguing the Electoral College: Pro

by James M. Banner Jr. on Nov 11, 2000

James M. Banner, Jr.

         An institution created generations before any of us were born in
a  nation entirely unlike our own naturally puzzles and frustrates us. Set
against our highest cultural and political ideal, that of democracy, our
way of choosing the president seems fatally flawed.

         It also provokes frequent calls for its abolition, especially in
times of political crisis like this one. But efforts to abolish the
Electoral College have always failed, either in Congress or in the states.
The last constitutional amendment that sought to abolish the college, that
of the late 1960s, passed Congress but failed to be ratified by the
requisite three-fourths of the states. Why is that?

         The American people wisely respect their Constitution, recognizing
the wisdom of the founders' tendency to err, if at all, on the side of
caution. Critics say that those men, James Madison, "Father of the
Constitution" premier among them, feared democracy — decisions affecting
the public good arrived at through the vote of average men. More
accurately, they feared impulse and impetuosity, and the prospect of voter
manipulation. The Electoral College provided stability to their daring
republican experiment.

         More than 200 years later, there's still something useful, perhaps
even attractive, in having  an institution whose members can deliberately
and calmly assess the outcome of an election and judge its impact upon the
public weal.

         More important, the existence of the Electoral College creates
some important  "requirements" for presidential candidates. As we have just
seen, it forces them to attend to the voters in small states. It leads them
to campaign everywhere, not just through television, but in person. To be
sure, the states with the largest number of electoral votes — California,
New York, Texas and, yes, Florida — sometimes get the lion's share of
attention, but not this year. Battleground states, many of them small like
Iowa and Oregon, received more attention just for having an electorate that
had not made up its mind.

         Were elections decided by popular vote alone, candidates would
be  inclined to concentrate their efforts in the most populous states and
cities.  Voters in rural areas could forget the candidates' concern with
farm issues.  States with small populations such as Rhode Island or
Delaware would disappear into their larger neighbors during presidential
campaigns, and distant places such as Hawaii and Alaska could forget about
ever seeing presidential campaigners.

         Then there are times like these when the popular and electoral
votes roughly coincide in their closeness, each being proportional to the
other.  We should not forget that this very rarely happens. Usually the
winner gains a decisive number of electoral votes even when the popular
vote is close.  This normal pattern has solidified the president-elect's
victory and bestowed a constitutionally-mandated authority.

         Those who would have the Electoral College abolished like to point
to its uniqueness, as if this one facet of the many aspects of American
distinctiveness is a Bad Thing. But when was uniqueness a disqualification
for American pride? And, anyway, since we have used this constitutional
institution with little ill effect for more than 200 years, the burden of
proof as to the happy results of its abolition must fall upon those who
would abolish it. And, while they speak only of the benefits of its end,
how can they know what unfortunate consequences might also follow its repeal?


James M. Banner, Jr. a historian in Washington, D.C., was co-founder of the History News Service. He is most recently the editor of A Century of American Historiography (2009).